Lost Arts: How to Commit a Train Robbery

Bill Miner wanted poster

Never let it be said that we at the ol’ raincoaster blog stood by passively and watched our proud Canadian heritage slip into oblivion unmourned, unrecorded, unblogged. Now that the last of The Grey Fox‘s victims has been enveloped by the sweet embrace of the eternal, it is time to pause and reflect for a moment on that archetype of the Old West, the train robbery.

Consider this post to be the blogosphere equivalent of all those Schools of Chinese Culture, Roots Regained Circles, and those noble, innumerable, federally-funded oral history projects staffed by earnest future spinsters equipped with digital recorders and, always, the wrong shoes for the weather.

In true Canadian tradition, the art of the train robbery was introduced to Canada by an American, who brought it up from the States. Bill Miner, AKA The Grey Fox, AKA The Gentleman Bandit, was often taken for a Canadian by his own countrymen, perhaps on account of his legendary softspokenness and courtesy, despite possessing, all of his life, a telltale trace of his Kentucky birthplace in his accents.

Miner was no ordinary bandito when he arrived in British Columbia. Having been a stagecoach robber since the age of 16, he was as famous throughout North America as the man who first put crime and syntax together in the felicitous and elegantly simple catchphrase, “Hands up.”

But I digress…

Put simply, there are several traditional methods of holding up a train.

First (and this is common to all methods) select your train. It is advisable to select one carrying a great deal of money and moving slowly through rough, deserted territory. Steam trains taking safes full of gold dust south from the Cariboo mines are ideal. As you can see, here we tawdry moderns face our first insurmountable obstacle: the Cariboo gold fields are relatively played out, and you could probably get more money sticking up a bingo hall on Welfare Wednesday. Sic transit glamour mundi.

Now that you have selected your train, the methods diverge:

  • Method A is simply to put something big on the tracks, in hopes the driver will simply become so confused he’ll stop and sit there, perhaps wondering how that large, freshly-cut log got there, or cursing the obscure illness that struck that moose dead right across the tracks. At this point, the robbers pop out of the woods, flourish a weapon, and either take the loot or, for the more discriminating robber, proceed to Method D’s advanced steps. This method, however, is easily thwarted by train drivers who simply back up instead of sitting still. A variation of this method was used in the Great Train Robbery as late as 1963. I guess those Brits don’t watch a lot of Westerns.
  • Method B is simply to put something on the tracks that will derail the train, thereafter following procedures as outlined in Method A, only maybe sometimes horizontally. This has the following disadvantages: it is hella noisy, drawing unwanted attention even on the most desolate of mountainsides; it kills a lot of people, and this is always a disadvantage when you factor potential jail sentences vs potential lynchings into the ROI; and the entire thing may catch fire, preventing you from making off with the gold and rendering the entire episode needlessly gruesome and unprofitable.
  • Method C, favoured by film directors who’ve never left Los Angeles County, is to gallop up alongside the train and climb aboard, flourish your weapon in the engineer’s startled face, and take the loot, although not before stealing the heart of a winsome blonde passenger.
  • Method D, and this is the method favoured by the Grey Fox himself, is to wait till the train makes an scheduled stop at a mail depot or some other unpopulated spot, sneak aboard, climb over the tender (which carries the wood or coal for the engine) flourish your weapon in the engineer’s face, and proceed to the advanced steps.

The advanced steps are as follows:

  • You want the money. You don’t want the passengers; they’re a lot of hassle, just ask any porter. So you stop the train and uncouple the passenger cars, taking great care to keep the engine attached to the express car, the one with all the gold in it (some robbers were not so careful about this and even The Grey Fox’s team screwed it up from time to time). You then proceed forward with the train; this has the advantage that, if another train is following up the track, it’ll hit the passenger cars and that will slow down pursuit as well as buffer the cars that the gang is in. You convince the guard, through effective flourishment of your weapons, to open the safes. If he fails to open the safes, you proceed to use dynamite to open them. You then stop the train at a prearranged point, where your getaway man is waiting with the horses, bid the beleaguered train crew good evening, and ride off into the night with gold and securities worth a king’s ransom.

Any questions, class?

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24 thoughts on “Lost Arts: How to Commit a Train Robbery

  1. You may wish to point out that ineptitude with dynamite may directly or indirectly lead to your death, not to mention plating the interior walls of a safe with gold–pretty to look at, but impractical for laying on the table with a declaration of “I’m all in.”

    In the case of indirect death, your corpse may eventually be mistaken for that of a junkie, and be employed as an extra on “The Six Million Dollar Man,” among other humiliations.

  2. The only problem with robbing trains is that when you bring the rifles and machine guns back to Mapache, you may end up in a desparate shoot out Sam Peckinpah style with his entire revolutionary army.

    At least that would afford the opportunity of reenacting one of the most violent scenes ever caught on film, and the chance to shout out gratuitously “Give ’em hell, Pike!!!”

  3. You’re just Upper Mexicans to us, young lady!

    Nikita: if you take nothing else from this post, take the knowledge that the horse method was the least successful train robbery tactic. Stick with the old “sneak aboard at a stop” Bill Miner method and your success is virtually assured, provided you can find someplace trains still haul cargos of precious metals or the like. Perhaps Sierra Leone?

  4. Seriously, people: this isn’t a Diggable story? Gah, I’m apparently incapable of pandering to the vicarious hordes. I should blog about football with naked cheerleaders or something.

  5. Sorry; I didn’t see this until now because I was caught up in the How to Stave Off Consumption series on Ye Olde MSN. Apparently, I need to bleed off my black bile more often.

    Also, the naked cheerleader football blog position was taken by Sports by Brooks (and With Leather and Easterbrook and Sports Illustrated and…) already. Maybe nude ping pong? Barely clothed curling? Overdressed sumo?

  6. @Tuffy:
    You haven’t seen her when she drinks. Which would be pretty much anytime she has enough money to buy vodka … or Sterno.

    In RC’s defense, she only buys high-quality name-brand Sterno, not cheap knock-off brands. And her B-52s are poured with authentic Aqua-Velva.

  7. Boy, does this ever bring back memories. In the late 70’s I became so intrigued about Miner and the town of Princeton, BC, that apparently hid him out on numerous occasions, that I planned to write a novel, a kind of Richard Brautigan meets Finnegans Wake type thing, then realised I needed some money, treeplanted and fruitpicked near Creston, BC, and went to Mexico and got drunk for the winter. I never wrote that book but sure had a lot of fun talking it up:P

  8. I was going to use MY Wanted poster, but then I decided to keep on the DL for now. No sense having everyone after the reward money.

    Neath, you should write that book! And then sell it for a screenplay and become rich.

  9. I never thought I would hear anyone say/write the words “intrigued about… Princeton, BC.” Although it is so sad that the plucky little Tastee Freez has been replaced by an A&W, and Floydd is Gay sign (just beyond Princeton) is scrubbed clean.
    Great post, btw. Bill Miner also went to the BC Pen, and of course it’s all granny condos now, but there’s a street in there called Miner Street. Wonder if it’s named for the man himself?

  10. ok… You think these Train Robbers would be Filthy Rich especially if that guy was doin it since he was 16 teen … They Must of blew it all on gambling, women and alchol.. or if they where sensible.. They could of massed great fortunes and stashed it away in an cave or got a corrupt banker (Gold Smith) or some one to hold on it … I wonder ? or they could of been employeed to do what they do. Who know’s !!

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